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Poll: Should Jerry Brown and Barack Obama tell us to pray?

May 02, 2013|By Michael McGough
  • President Obama speaks at an interfaith service for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.
President Obama speaks at an interfaith service for victims of the Boston… (John Tlumacki / EPA )

Gov. Jerry Brown, a onetime Jesuit seminarian, issued a proclamation designating Thursday a Day of Prayer in California, timed to coincide with the National Day of Prayer proclaimed by President Obama pursuant to an act of Congress.

“A National Day of Prayer is an occasion for each of us to reflect more deeply on the eternal verities and those matters which transcend our everyday routines,” the proclamation reads. “Through prayer, one opens the heart and stills the mind so that the Divine Presence may be directly encountered. I encourage Californians to participate in this day in the manner that is most appropriate to their own religious or spiritual beliefs and experience.”

To which some atheists would reply: “Speak for yourself.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which describes itself as “the nation's largest association of free-thinkers with more than 19,000 members,” took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post on Thursday headlined “God & Government A Dangerous Mix.” It featured images of and quotations from John F. Kennedy (“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute”) and Thomas Jefferson (“Question with boldness even the existence of a God”).

The ad quotes a federal district court decision (later vacated) that found the National Day of Prayer an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The judge in that case declared that “the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience.”

Until recently -- even after the Supreme Court ruled against official prayers in public schools -- few questioned the notion that, in the words of the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

But with nonbelievers growing in numbers and self-confidence, that consensus is eroding. On Wednesday I wrote about complaints by “non-theist” groups that they had been excluded from a memorial service for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. (Obama, who spoke at that service, used his Day of Prayer proclamation to remember all those affected by recent events, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, the Newtown, Conn., shootings, and the explosion in West, Texas.)

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